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2003-09-04

In Surprise Decision, Federal Judges Block FCC Media Ownership Rules

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Court ruling marks major setback to the FCC and Michael Powell; the regulations were to go into effect today. This comes as the major networks launch new pro-FCC lobbying effort. Their message? "America Says: Don’t Get Between Me And My TV." [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript By Amy Goodman and the staff of Democracy Now!

September 4, 2003 — In a major setback to the Federal Communications Commission and its chairman Michael Powell, a federal appeals court yesterday blocked the implementation of the FCC’s new media ownership rules. The regulations, which are expected to lead to greater media consolidation were to go into effect today.

Speaking today on Democracy Now!, Andrew Schwartzman, the lawyer who successfully argued the case before the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, said, "The significance of this victory, number one, is that it forestalled the media damage that we would have faced if the FCC’s order had gone into affect."

The request for the stay was sought by the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group for low power radio stations. The group has been very forceful in trying to get the FCC to expand opportunities for community voices on the air. It has played a major role in getting the low power rules adopted by the FCC and has trained people throughout the country and helped build low power F.M. stations. Prometheus has also argued that changes in the commercial media ownership rules will adversely affect the marketplace and adversely effect community radio as well.

Schwartzman, who is also president of The Media Access Project said yesterday’s ruling also gives media activists "the opportunity to convince congress that it’s time to overturn the entire FCC decision so we can start from scratch."

Dissident FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said: "The court has done what the commission should have done in the first place."

"We have an opportunity here to continue making what is a historic expression of opposition," said Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Not since the 1930’s have you seen so many people speaking up about media in this country. "

The decision came as the owners of the television networks CBS, NBC and FOX have joined efforts in a high profile lobbying effort to persuade Congress not to overturn the media ownership regulations recently approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the networks are attempting to send the message to Washington that voters don’t care who owns their local television station and that voters oppose government regulation.

The campaign is centered around the slogan, "America Says: Don’t Get Between Me And My TV." The networks are running ads this week in the Washington-based papers, The Hill and Roll Call, which are primarily read by Senators, House representatives and their staffs.

"There are members of congress that are using their deep connections to try to undo all the advances that the public has made over the last few months," said Chester.

Schwartzman said of the ads, "It’s too little too late and I think it’s going to be counterproductive. I think members of congress are going to be rather annoyed by it."

While he praised the court ruling, Schwartzman cautioned that the battle is far from won.

"I hope that congress will step in," he said. "Congress can avoid a lot of unnecessary work and a lot of confusion if they just overturned the whole rules. We would get the same results a lot quicker if congress does it than if we have to slog through the same fight in the courts."

During the run-up to the FCC vote, more than two million letters, emails and faxes were sent to the FCC. Almost all of them opposed the weakening of the nation’s media ownership regulations.

"This is a tremendous victory," said Chester. "Not only for everyone who cares about democracy but particularly those activists, who urged the congress to overturn the rules and oppose the passage of these rules. The fact that the court understood there was an important controversy, and so much at stake, is a direct reflection of the activism that the public interest community did over the last year or so."

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzalez.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And welcome to our listeners and viewers from around the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very appropriate to be playing that song right now, listener supported, the idea of grassroots media, with this major decision that has taken place in the last twenty-four hours. A major setback for the Federal Communications Commission and its chair, Michael Powell. A federal appeals court yesterday blocked the implementation of the FCC’s new media ownership rules. The regulations were expected to lead to greater media consolidation and would have gone into affect today.

The request of the stay was sought by the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia based advocacy group for low power radio station. Dissident FCC commissioner Michael Copps, said, "the court has done what the commission should have done in the first place."

JUAN GONZALEZ: The decision came as the owners of several television networks, CBS, NBC and FOX joined efforts in a high profile lobbying effort to persuade congress not to overturn the media ownership regulations recently approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the networks are attempting to send the message to Washington that voters don’t care who owns their local television station and that voters oppose government regulation. The campaign is centered around the slogan, "America says don’t get between me and my TV." The networks are running ads this week in the Washington based papers, "The Hill" and "Roll Call", which are primarily read by senators, house representatives and their staffs.

During the run up to the FCC vote, more than two million letters, emails and faxes were sent to the commission. Almost all of them opposed the weakening of the nation’s media ownership regulations.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re going to start by talking to Andrew Schwartzman, the lead attorney for the Media Access Project. He argued the case before the appeals court yesterday. I talked to him shortly after the court handed down the decision to stay the media ownership rules and asked him to talk about the significance of the ruling.

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: The significance of this victory, number one, is that it forestalled the media damage that we would have faced if the FCC’s order had gone into affect.

Number two, it gives us the opportunity to convince congress that it’s time to overturn the entire FCC decision so we can start from scratch. And if necessary we can convince the court.

AMY GOODMAN: And your opinion on this ad campaign of NBC and CBS, saying, "Don’t get between me and my TV."

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: It’s too little too late and I think it’s going to be counterproductive. I think members of congress are going to be rather annoyed by it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about your clients?

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: Yes, Prometheus Radio Project is a group of low power F.M. advocates who have been very forceful in trying to get the FCC to expand opportunities for community voices on the air. They have played a major role in getting the low power rules adopted by the FCC and they have trained people throughout the country and helped build low power F.M. stations throughout the country. They have also argued that changes in the commercial media ownership rules will adversely affect the marketplace and adversely effect community radio as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this lawsuit had anything to do with Michael Powell saying that he would give more licenses to low powered F.M. stations?

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: I don’t think the lawsuit had much to do with it. But I do think the public reaction to the FCC’s rules made Powell look and see what they could do to try to indicate that they were being responsive. We have been begging the F.C.C. for a very long time to beef up its commitment to low power F.M. and this is a side benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question, where do you go from here? This is just an injunction.

ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: Yes. The court indicated that if they granted a stay they would want to hear briefs and get briefs very, very quickly from the parties. And so we expect that there will be briefs right away.

And that’s one reason I hope that congress will step in, because congress can avoid a lot of unnecessary work and a lot of confusion if they just overturned the whole rules. We would get the same results a lot quicker if congress does it than if we have to slog through the same fight in the courts.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, the lawyer who successfully argued before the third U.S. circuit court of appeals in Philadelphia yesterday. I spoke to him just after the court handed down its decision.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined by telephone with Jeff Chester, who is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JEFF CHESTER: Thank you very much.
This is a tremendous victory. Not only for everyone who cares about democracy but particularly those activists, and many of those are your listeners, who urged the congress to overturn the rules and oppose that the FCC, the passage of these rules, because the fact that this court, this relatively obscure federal court felt that this issue was so controversial and of so much importance. And up until recently that would have been unheard of. The fact that the court understood there was an important controversy, and so much at stake, is a direct reflection of the activism that the public interest community, your listeners, did over the last year or so.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jeff, where does the movement go from here? Because clearly in the congress, the House of Representatives only voted to overturn one of the major rule changes and some senate committees, appropriations, are still considering its action. Where does the movement go from here in terms of congress?

JEFF CHESTER: This is a tremendous victory that Andrew Schwartzman and his colleagues at Media Access Project and his clients, like Prometheus and Media Alliance, gave us. It gave us momentum today and. I hope that your listeners will go to their phones and faxes and emails and flood the senate appropriations committee and Senator Ted Stevens with requests that they repeal all of the rules today as the senate appropriations committee meets today.

There’s an opportunity today, actually, to have that committee pass legislation that would repeal, in essence, all the rules. To go far beyond what the house did.
I was heartened this morning to read in "Variety", the show biz trade publication, that Senator John McCain greeted the court decision with approval and said that one rule that should not go into affect in particular was the rule that would allow TV stations and newspapers to be commonly owned for the first time. That’s a major step forward if indeed McCain has articulated support for the public interest position.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this ad campaign of FOX, of CBS—which is owned by Viacom—and General Electric’s NBC, that is in the capitol hill newspapers that says, "America says don’t get between me and my TV," crafted by the republican pollster, Frank Luntz.

JEFF CHESTER: That’s right. This is why we have to keep the pressure on, not just today, but in the pursuing weeks to see if we can get congressional passage that will reverse, if not all of the rules, the worst of the rules.

The networks have started major, well-funded lobbying efforts. There are members of congress that are using their deep connections to try to undo all the advances that the public has made over the last few months to tell congress that there’s real problems with media consolidation.

I understand that newspaper companies, the newspaper publishers have also launched a campaign urging the congress not to pass legislation that would prevent newspapers and television stations from merging.

So, these guys have woken up and they’re spending wildly, including hiring Frank Luntz who did an absurd poll for them, a poll that was a disingenuous poll that underscores the whole problem with media ownership in many ways. What the networks are telling congress is the public doesn’t care. Everything is fine. But the networks have not told congress that by the way, we’ve been able to accumulate so much power, so many media properties, not just old media but new media on the Internet, broadband and cable, because up until now we’ve been able to work our will in the legislative process and you’ve been asleep. There’s no mention in any of the broadcast or lobbying efforts about what really is going on.

We have an opportunity here to continue making what is a historic expression of opposition. Not since the 1930’s have you seen so many people speaking up about media in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about, Jeff, given the feverish efforts now that the companies are making to attempt to influence legislation. What about their coverage of the situation.

I know some of the major executives are major donors to the Bush administration, especially General Perenkial of Univision who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and is a Bush pioneer from way back. What are they doing in terms of covering this effort? Have they improved that at all?

JEFF CHESTER: That’s really the real illustration of the problem. Here you have a front-page story at least in the "New York Times" and "Washington Post" today. And on NBC’s premiere news program in the morning "Today" it is not mentioned in the headlines. It was not mentioned in other newscasts that I saw. They simply don’t want to cover it.

FOX has Frank Luntz on and it’s not really clear that in fact Mr. Luntz is talking about the need for congress to reject public interest calls on media ownership. FOX doesn’t make clear that it was FOX that paid Mr. Luntz. So there’s a huge cover up going on and it illustrates one of the worst problems of media concentration. These same companies are wheeling and dealing behind the scenes and they control the major television news operations and they never once discuss, cover or analyze what they’re doing and its implications.

AMY GOODMAN: The FOX news execs who are giving Bush thousands of dollars?

JEFF CHESTER: That’s right. And the networks themselves are giving heavily to Bush. They’re doing that because they expect to pay back. But it’s probably too late for the television networks in part. They’re going to face some kind of roll back likely now. And what can I say; it’s an expression of all the great activism.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally this merger, or rather, General Electric buying NBC and buying Vivendi; what does this mean?

JEFF CHESTER: I think it’s another example of the accelerated media consolidation. It shows that after we deal with broadcast media concentration and newspapers we really have to deal with cable and broadband. Because what GE is really doing is spending billions of dollars to buy access to cable channels.

AMY GOODMAN: Which ones?

JEFF CHESTER: They get the SCIFI channel. They get the USA channel among others. Vivendi Universal has a major cable channel under their control. These are the golden channels of the future because not only does cable provide access to the majority of Americans viewers—85%—but cable is the principle way of connecting on to the future of the Internet as well.

So what the big networks have done is use their political lobbying clout—and of course their fat bank accounts—in essence, to insure that they will dominate this new media age that we are entering of many channels and interactive services. It’s a merger that needs to be opposed and it’s another illustration of how just four or five companies control the studios and the cable systems and broadcast networks and if they’re allowed to, many more newspapers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And bush is not the only one getting big media contributions. Also on the democratic side, John Kerry is, isn’t he?

JEFF CHESTER: They’re all getting money from the media industry. The media industry is a very significant contributor. Yes, Kerry is getting money from show biz interests. But the money is somewhat divided. There’s a lot of Hollywood money that’s also going into the Democratic Party that is distinct from the television network money going to Bush, where it’s clear that it’s pegged for the media ownership.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, thank you very much for being with us. Executive Director for the Center for Digital Democracy.

JEFF CHESTER: Keep the pressure on today.

AMY GOODMAN: There are protests going on around the country. Again the FCC and its chair, Michael Powell, were dealt a major set back yesterday with a surprise court ruling in Philadelphia that blocks the controversial new media ownership rules pending a full judicial review. You’re listening to Democracy Now!


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